How to use stones to attract wildlife

Natural stone makes an attractive addition to any garden and provides a diversity of habitats for wildlife.

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How to use stones in your garden article spread

Natural stone is aesthetically pleasing and provides a diversity of habitats for wildlife.

Nothing in the garden looks nicer than natural stone. It is sensuous to touch and, with a wide range of textures, shapes and colours, can form a major feature of any garden. Unfortunately, the current vogue is to cover gardens with slabs or gravel to reduce maintenance time or provide off-road parking. Large blocks or stone pillars are used as ‘features’. Much stone is imported or obtained from environmentally destructive sources, and this unimaginative use of stone can reduce the value of a garden for wildlife.
 
The key to making stone a feature of a wildlife garden is where you source it and how it is used. The gaps in between are more important than the stones themselves, so very large stones have little benefit. A range of sizes and shapes maximises the variety of crevice sizes and shapes. This is enhanced by placing the stones in a variety of locations – sunny and hot, shaded and moist, with some stone heaps filled with earth and others filled with debris for invertebrates to burrow into.
 
USING STONES TO BEST EFFECT

 
  • Dry-stone walls are attractive, but they do not have to be very big, so there is no need to be an expert ‘waller’. Less than a metre high is ideal. Use flat stones, make the wall wider at the base and fill with soil or small stones.
     
  • To attract invertebrates, plant a range of flowering plants in sunny spots, or ferns and woodland plants in shade. If you have dead space behind the wall, fill it with medium-sized stones or broken clay (not concrete) roof tiles to provide shelter for a range of species, and install clay pipes along the bottom of the wall to allow access to the infill.
     
  • Shady locations provide great habitats for stone-loving beetle larvae and amphibians. Fill the crevices with shredded bark or woodchips, and plant ferns next to, or within, the stone pile to provide cover and help retain moisture. Ivy or woodland plants such as bugle and greater stitchwort add decorative appeal and ecological value.
     
  • Stone piles in sunny spots attract different species and should be constructed much as for dry-stone walls. They can be low and inconspicuous at the back of flowerbeds, or larger and turned into features in their own right. Plant with drought tolerant plants or cover low heaps with climbers.
     
  • Heaps of stone beside ponds provide habitats for amphibians and insects. Ensure that some stones are underwater because this helps those above the waterline stay damp. Let aquatic plants grow through the stones.
 
SIX SPECIES THAT WILL BENEFIT FROM CLEVERLY PLACED ROCKPILES IN YOUR GARDEN.
 
  1. Common froglets use stones at the edges of ponds to clamber out onto land safely, and big adults spend much of the summer under the stones.
     
  2. Greater stitchwort is an attractive woodland plant that can be grown over rock piles in shady areas to attract insects such as moths.
     
  3. Wild thyme favours sunny rocky slopes, especially those with sandy or calcareous soils. Its abundant nectar attracts a wide range of insects.
     
  4. Red-tailed bumblebees nest underground, especially under stones and in walls. They build large nests, with colonies of up to 150 or so bees.
     
  5. Wrens and blue tits nest among garden stones and dry walls, often quite low down. Blue tits prefer sunnier sites, while wrens favour the shade.
     
  6. Field voles are only likely to be found in gardens close to rough grassy areas. Both they and woodmice nest and breed under stones and in dry walls.
 
STEVE'S TOP TIPS:
 
  • Instead of buying stones, try to find unwanted ones. It is ecologically better and saves money. If you visit areas with stony ground, farmers are often more than happy to let you remove stones from their fields, but you must ask first. For example, I obtained permission to take some red stone from land in Exmoor.
     
  • Collect unwanted stone from local roadworks and skips; it is amazing how much good stone is thrown away. Also visit stone recycling centres: a wide variety of good stone is available. For instance, old pennant stone pavement slabs make great paths.
     
  • If you do buy stones, make sure they are locally sourced: it is depressing how much stone is imported from as far away as China and India. And in some countries, child labour is used for quarrying.
     
  • Only buy gravel from builders merchants and garden centres if you are sure it is not from a marine source. Dredging inflicts severe damage on marine ecosystems. If there is no label, opt for recycled material instead.
     
  • The same goes for cobbles, many of which come from rivers. They look great, but there are high environmental costs associated with their extraction and transport. For the wildlife gardener, such cobbles are no better than stones collected locally.
     
  • Identifying a local source of stones enables you to collect the exact sizes and shapes you need: large ones to support dry-stone walls, small ones for infill, flat ones for garden paths and rounder ones to surround ponds.

 

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